By Milena Mihova
Photographs: Hristo Rusev
A row of ghostly looking abandoned houses alongside a road covered in potholes serve as a welcome sign to the secluded Bulgarian village of Kostur. Situated close to the Turkish border, the place is almost equidistant from Sofia and Istanbul.
“Everything here is designed to give you that middle of nowhere feeling. It is sad and lonely,” explains a bus driver from the near by town of Svilengrad whose job is to take rare visitors to the village. Kostur is like hundreds of others villages in the EU’s poorest member state, severely affected by poverty and depopulation. In a place like this silence is usually disrupted only by street dogs’ barking and crumbling of another wall of the empty homes.
The thing one least expects to hear in Kostur is cockney accent. So the sight of two young men coming from down the road, talking to each other as if in one of London’s high streets comes as a surprise. Brothers Rhys (20) and Anton (22) Gordon have lived in Kostur long enough to call themselves locals.
And so have the whole of their family. The Londoners arrived in Kostur for the first time almost 8 years ago, in what the villagers mark with sense of humour as “The British invasion”.
It all began with a pop up window on a computer screen. In 2007 the head of the family Narrall Godon was browsing the internet for holiday home in some warm part of the globe. Spain was his first choice. But then a pop up window came on screen with real estate offers from a place called Bulgaria.
“The prices seemed suspiciously low, 4 000 – 5 000 pounds per house, I had to call the British embassy to check if it was not a fraud.”, the 44 year old remembers. After making sure he had not been taken in, Gordon decided on buying a home in the Balkan state. “Finding Kostur was a matter of chance but also a case of love at first sight”, the Londoners tell.
At first it is just a house for the summer, but the place soon became special. “I had this terrible accident shortly after my arrival; I was bitten by a mite. The weather so hot, I was lying in the bed, feeling awfully unwell. All my loved ones were still in England. In a situation like this in UK you have no choice but to take care of yourself. But Kostur was so different.
“As soon as the news about my accident spread, I had this delegation of concerned neighbours coming to my aid with painkillers and food. They wouldn’t go away until I was better,” Narrall smiles.
Moved by the notion of achieving happiness, the Englishman decided to take his whole family to their new Bulgarian home. His wife Yvonne, daughter Tia (13) and the two boys arrived in Kostur for good two years ago. The Englishmen soon befriended the family of Radka and Konstadin Kostadinov who by that time owned the only grocery in the village.
But last September the Bulgarians, both in their fifties, were killed in a car accident. Narrall who is a male nurse by trade and his chef wife Yvonne decided to take on the shop out of respect for their gone friends.
“Today it is not the Gordons’ shop, it is the village’s shop. It is the place where on Monday we are having the Mayor’s day. On Wednesday the doctor is coming to examine patients and on Friday it’s a parliamentary day, so everyone can come and say whatever is on their mind,” Narrall explains.
With most of the villagers in their seventies and eighties social services in Kostur is entirely entrusted to the English family. During the winter Anton and Rhys operate as social service officers, using a sleigh to reach homes of elderly people who can’t go out to buy bread.
“I’ve told my kids never to judge people by their education or social status but by their deeds. I have never met kinder people than those in Kostur. They are always here for us.”, their father ponders.
However, he confesses of lingering sadness coming from the fact that in couple of years most of their fellow villagers will be gone. “It is painful to think that may be next year the good baba (this is what Bulgarians call elderly women) won’t be here any more. But that’s how life is. No guarantees for anyone,” the Englishman says.
Without a doubt the most popular member of the Gordon family is daughter Tia, who until recently has been the only young child in the village. To everyone here she is known as the Caribbean princess. Tia is a promising athlete who has already been offered a place at the prestigious sporting school in the regional capital Haskovo. Her father considers she is too young to live by herself, so for now the princess goes to a public school in the nearby Svilengrad.
“We have encountered racism in Bulgaria, but never in Kostur. The teachers at Tia’s school are great, always there if a child gets carried away,” Gordon says. Sport runs in the blood of all Gordon’s children with Rhys and Anton devoted Arsenal supporters. “My dream is to play for the gunners someday,” the younger brother confesses. For now he is a regular player for Svilengrad’s youth team.
Couple of years ago Rhys and Anton miraculously escaped serious injuries when they had been attacked and robbed in the street in London. The accident served as a wake up call to their parent who decided that something has to change.
“I don’t miss the English way of life, just the rules. The bureaucracy in Bulgaria is frightening, tedious and heartless. They make you go from door to door for every insignificant detail. I have this strong dislike for some Bulgarian institutions. Their aim is to help people not to make them confused and frustrated,” Narrall explains. His wife Yvonne is adamant that despite the difficulties their family is keeping the shop. “We are not in for the profit, it is more like a mission. We can’t make a fortune here, just enough to pay taxes,” the former chef thinks.
In order to come to Kostur she sacrificed a successful career which included cooking for the British royal court and the family of David Beckham. “I don’t like it when the Bulgarian surrender before difficulties saying – nothing can be changed this is the way it is. People here have to regain their fighting spirit. They have managed to preserve their nation during the 500 years of the Ottoman rule, now it is not the time to give up,” the Londoner urges. She tell of her pride of his family Caribbean roots. “We have
been through a lot, so we know the value of the thing in life.”
Gordons have properties in the near towns of Svilengrad and Harmanli as well but confess to have found happiness in Kostur, the village that is like every other to some, ghostly for others, but just perfect to one English family.